Head Games

What Freud never knew

Researchers Find Regifting Isn't as Offensive as You Think

Studies reveal that gift givers and recipients see the matter quite differently.

Remember the episode of Seinfeld when the character Elaine was outraged when she discovered that Dr. Tim Whatley had regifted the label maker she gave him to Jerry? While the show hilariously depicted the social taboo of passing on gifts, current research reveals that Elaine's reaction doesn't quite square with science.

New research has found that the practice of regifting may not be as offensive as you think. In an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Harvard Business School, and the London Business School investigated regifting from the perspective of both the initial giver and the receiver. In a series of studies, which involved hypothetical scenarios and actual gift exchanges between friends, the authors explored whether the practice is as offensive to givers as receivers assume.

The results revealed that givers and receivers see the act of regifting very differently. Repeatedly, the recipients of gifts who were then instructed to imagine regifting them believed that the original givers would be more offended by this than the givers truly were. In fact, regifters believed that rewrapping a gift and passing it on to someone else was just as offensive as throwing it in the trash.

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But really, what's so bad about passing on an undesired item to someone who would enjoy it more? The authors say the gulf in perception between givers and receivers comes down to entitlement. Much like handing over a title, givers believe that receivers are welcome to do whatever they like with their gifts once they are delivered. Since the givers' obligations, as it were, are over at this point, so too may be their investment in how receivers choose to use their gifts. By contrast, receivers believe that the givers' intentions should be honored well after a gift has been given. Because of these asymmetric expectations, receivers may overestimate givers' negative reactions to regifting.

Given how challenging it can be to find the perfect gift, the authors contend that regifting is a sensible option. Yet the taboo surrounding it looms large. How can regifters feel more comfortable recycling unwanted items? On a practical level, the authors suggest that givers may want to overtly encourage recipients to do with their gifts as they wish. Another way to destigmatize regifting is to normalize it. The authors found that raising the awareness of National Regifting Day both increased receivers' entitlement to regift and decreased their inclination to feel that they were being offensive to givers by doing so.

So don't despair if you are in receipt of a gift that is less than satisfying. There's plenty of gift exchanging to be done before the next National Regifting Day, which conveniently falls on December 20. Just in time for Christmas.


Follow me on twitter: @VinitaMehta2



Adams, G.S., Flynn, F.J., & Norton, M.I. (2012). The gifts we keep on giving: Documenting and destigmatizing the regifting taboo. In press, Psychological Science.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.


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